We are waking up!
Polling suggests that around 74% of the population is not only climate aware but thinks action is a priority. Not everyone can be an activist for system change but most want to do their bit. Ethical spending in the UK went up by nearly 24% between 2019 and 2020, and the market is now worth £122 billion. According to a study by Unilever, a third of consumers are choosing to buy from brands based on their social and environmental impact.
One would think that this would convince the free marketeers of where their fortunes lie, but we should never underestimate the power of short-term greed over a consideration of the existential threat.
Some companies, caught in the headlights of ‘business as usual’ resort to the short-sighted, self-serving, morally bankrupt strategy of greenwashing, the practice whereby companies or organisations make misleading or deceptive claims about the environmental benefits or sustainability of their products, services, or practices.
Greenwashing was first coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld referring to a hotel policy around reusing towels in order to “save the environment.” In fact, it was just to reduce laundry costs. Today, greenwashing involves presenting a false or exaggerated image of being environmentally friendly or socially responsible in order to appeal to consumers who are concerned about the environment.
An EU Commission study dating from 2020 found that around 53% of the claims to sustainable practice were vague, misleading, or unfounded. Let’s take a look at the various forms greenwashing can take.
Vague or unsubstantiated claims
Some companies make general claims about their environmental efforts without supporting evidence. For example, a company may use green buzzwords like ‘eco-friendly’, or ‘natural’ without providing specific details. They might also say that they are “committed to sustainability” safe in the knowledge that it is impossible to debunk an intention so it is an easy win.
Climate-related claims that are based on carbon offsets or carbon credits have been shown to be particularly misleading in their assurances. If everyone who took a flight offset by planting trees, we would lose 27% of our agricultural land: guilt free flying in a starving world.
False certifications or misleading labelling
Some companies might use terms like ‘carbon neutral’ on product packaging or in advertisements, even though the product itself has harmful environmental impacts: promoting one ‘green’ feature, while ignoring other more important environmental issues.
Who Gives a Crap’s toiletry products are undoubtedly 100% plastic-free. The packaging is recyclable and biodegradable. However, what they don’t mention is that their product is manufactured in China. The embedded emissions go some way to wiping out any environmental gain.
Nature-inspired imagery or simply green colour schemes are geared to work subliminally.
For example, Coca-Cola used green as the main colour for its Coca Cola Life product while claiming that their move to recyclable plastic was a principled move to sustainable practice. However, for Greenpeace, Juresa Lee writes: “Global brand audits repeatedly identify Coca-Cola as the biggest plastic polluter in the world. This is yet another attempt to greenwash the destruction they’re causing. Real action on the plastic pollution crisis, which is in turn fueling the climate crisis, is turning the tap off on plastic production and shifting to refill and reuse.”
And this cynical tactic is not the preserve of business. Politicians are equally adept at the deception. Literature promoting Robert Largan, Conservative MP for High Peak, earlier this year would seem at first glance to be from the Green Party: dark green text on a light green background with the word ‘Conservatives’ hidden in a discrete font size on the back.
Cherry picking data
Companies may cherry pick environmental data or metrics, omitting or downplaying its overall impact on the environment.
This was a recent ad campaign which attempted to present Gatwick airport as serious about its commitment to net zero. It doesn’t take much digging to conclude that installing LED runway lights does not offset the incalculable damage done to the environment through flying and airport expansion.
In a nation-wide press advertisement in 2008, EasyJet claimed that its plane emitted 22% less carbon dioxide than other planes on the same route. This claim was debunked by the Advertising Standards Agency as the company did not make it clear that the figure was related to emissions per passenger and the airline was able to reduce the emission simply because EasyJet planes could carry more passengers than traditional airlines.
The Government also attempts to throw a veil over the country’s emissions and consistently spins data to imply that the UK’s emissions are a minimal 1% of the global total. What they cynically omit are the ‘embedded’ emissions: those that we ‘export’ to other countries particularly China who manufacture on our behalf, and those resulting from transport of such goods back to the UK.
If this information was included, our carbon footprint doubles.
Lack of transparency
Institutions may merely omit information that could undermine their ‘green’ image, making it difficult for consumers to assess the true environmental impact of their products or practices.
The past several years have seen major financial institutions talking a big game about combating climate change. JP Morgan, Citibank and Bank of America have proudly announced ‘green investment’ opportunities. A JP Morgan report of 2020 even warned that: “The longer action is delayed the more costly it will be to deal with the issues. Moreover, a delayed policy response opens us up to potentially catastrophic outcomes, which might be impossible to reverse.”
However, the Rainforest Action Network revealed that they, along with other major banks such as Wells Fargo, Barclays, Bank of China, HSBC, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, continue to bankroll fossil fuel industries while claiming to be leaders of the green transition.
In spite of their part in a cover up of the dangers of CO2 emissions and their part in the destabilisation of the planet, inevitably many of the major oil companies now present themselves as saviours.
BP has attempted – through ad campaigns both printed and through social media – to mislead the public by emphasising a supposed commitment to a transition to renewables, when more than 96% of BP’s annual spend is on oil and gas. They also claim that “carbon capture… can cut CO2 emissions”, while the company privately plans to use carbon capture as a distraction to “enable the full use of fossil fuels across the energy transition and beyond”.
“BP are presenting themselves as offering green solutions that are good for the UK, but these investments are dwarfed by how much money they’re funnelling into fossil fuels. […] They’re doing this while making record profits and as millions of UK households are being pushed into fuel poverty.” – Doug Parr (chief scientist for Greenpeace UK)
In 2019 Shell announced a $300mn fund for “investing in natural ecosystems” to “support the transition towards a low-carbon future”. However, compared to its investments in fossil fuel extraction, this is revealed to be a drop in the ocean. This year the activist group Global Witness submitted a complaint to the US financial regulator accusing Shell of conflating its gas-related investments with its spending on renewables to artificially swell its stats. Global Witness found that:
“Despite fossil fuel giant Shell claiming to spend 12% of its annual expenditure on ‘Renewables and Energy Solutions’, […] in reality the company only spends 1.5% of its overall expenditure on solar and wind power generation. Alarmingly, it appears that a significant portion of Shell’s spending on ‘Renewables and Energy Solutions’ actually goes to investments in climate-wrecking gas. We cannot afford fossil fuel companies like Shell to carry on with these greenwashing and delaying tactics.”
The controversial Whitehaven mine in Cumbria was given the go ahead in spite of a wealth of evidence of the damage it would cause on the basis that it would be a carbon net zero operation. This claim is laughable as it doesn’t take account of the damage done to the planet from the coal itself.
New laws may prevent greenwashing and astroturfing
The good news is that companies are to face stricter rules from regulators in London and the EU. In Europe, proposals for a “Green Claims Directive” were published on 23 March 2023, for likely approval and implementation this year.
These proposals demand clarity when it comes to environmental claims and labels. The press release from the EU commission expanded:
“Before companies communicate any of the covered types of ‘green claims’ to consumers, such claims will need to be independently verified and proven with scientific evidence. As part of the scientific analysis, companies will identify the environmental impacts that are actually relevant to their product, as well as identifying any possible trade-offs, to give a full and accurate picture.”
New legislation will have teeth. In the EU, fines would be set at least at the level of 4% of the trader’s total annual turnover with the possibility that revenues might also be confiscated.
In the UK, a new Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill will be tabled, which will give the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) the power to outlaw misleading environmental claims. Here penalties of up to 10% of global revenues could be levied and Individuals who breach these laws will face fines of up to £300,000. The Financial Conduct Authority also aims to clamp down on greenwashing of investment products.
Within the advertising industry, there is increasing reluctance to work with and give credence to, fossil fuel companies. Clean Creatives, an organisation based in the US, posted the following mission statement on its website:
“Pledging not to work for fossil fuels polluters is the best way to show you are committed to a sustainable future for the creative industry. Continuing to work for fossil fuel companies poses risks to agencies’ reputation, recruitment, and retention. Sustainable brands need clean agencies in order to grow. As creatives and leaders of agencies, the pledge says that you will decline future contracts with the fossil fuel industry. As clients, it says you will decline work with agencies that retain fossil fuel industry clients.”
Greenwashers are on the back foot. It is time to hang them out to dry…